Politics & Policy

No, Conservatism Should Not Embrace Populism

Trump takes the stage at a rally in Kenansville, N.C., September 20, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Many political observers are over-interpreting the message sent by Trump’s election.

Populism? No thanks.

I am not now, nor will I ever be, a populist. Evidently, that separates me from a growing number of commentators, including some conservatives, wistfully engaged in Washington’s latest fad: over-interpreting Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.

The normally sensible Mike Lee, Republican senator from Utah, took to our pages to plead the case of “principled populism” — which is akin to calling for a sober Bacchanalia. Not surprisingly, Senator Lee’s brief doesn’t get very far before strangling in its own illogic, as odes to populism inevitably do. The “characteristic weakness” of populism, he tells us, is the lack of “a coherent philosophy,” which inevitably makes its “proposals” (I’d have said “careenings”) “inconsistent” and “unserious.” Well, yes . . . that is because populism is inherently unprincipled, inconsistent, and unserious, such that arguing for “principled populism” is so much nonsense.

Lee, a very smart guy, is anything but nonsensical. He is clearly trying to exploit Trump’s supposed populist moment for conservative ends. In his telling, “principled populism” becomes a menu of conservative proposals “focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and global economy.” I’m all for the menu, but that’s not “principled populism”; it’s conservatism — or, as Lee unnecessarily modifies it, “authentic conservatism.”

To slip it into the trendy “populist” brand, Lee has to misdiagnose the “chief political weakness of conservatism,” which he takes to be the failure to perceive problems. To the contrary, conservatives are quite good at perceiving problems — especially problems demagogically manufactured into crises for the purpose of rationalizing populist solutions of the statist variety. In reality, the chief political weakness of conservatism is that modern Americans are conditioned to expect that government can — or must at least try to — solve all our problems. It is the lot of conservatives to resist ill-conceived solutions. Populism cannot change the fact that government is incapable of solving problems upstream of government — problems of culture and complexity that government amelioration efforts, however well-intentioned, often make worse.

There is obvious incompatibility between conservatism’s “don’t just do something, stand there” nature and populism’s demands for action that is forceful even if rash. Yet, by the end, Lee convinces himself that populism can not only ratchet up limited-government approaches but even “anchor conservatism to the Constitution and radically decentralize Washington’s policymaking power.” Again, these are worthy conservative objectives. They are rooted, however, in a deep understanding of why the Constitution’s separation-of-powers framework and promotion of individual liberty are, in the long run, good for society. It is fantasy to believe these objectives will be helped along by populism. More reflective of a mood than a theory, populism is notoriously content to have big-government preening overrun limited-government caution.

But give Senator Lee his due: He is at least trying to wage conservatism in our purportedly populist environment. His “principled populism” turns out mainly to be principled conservatism under a different name. Stephen Moore, by contrast, is telling conservatives to abandon their principles entirely: Surrender to the zeitgeist, deep-six the GOP’s image as the (highly imperfect) vehicle of Reagan conservatism, and become “Trump’s populist working-class party.”

Like Lee, Moore thinks conservatives need to “open [their] eyes to the everyday anxieties and financial stress people are facing,” a capacity he acquired by turning “more into a populist” on the hustings with Trump. Let’s put aside that many (though by no means all) of these anxieties and financial stresses have been caused or worsened by statist government policies; and that conservatives have, in fact, been hard at work developing proposals to address them. What exactly does Moore’s metamorphosis portend in practice?

He reportedly told some fairly aghast congressional Republicans that it means helping Trump deliver on his campaign promises . . . even if lawmakers think some of them are dumb ideas — just as Moore does. Trump, for example, wants an Obama-like stimulus of a trillion dollars for roads, bridges, etc. Moore’s response? “I don’t want to spend all that money on infrastructure. I think it’s mostly a waste of money. But if voters want it, they should get it.”

That’s populism: Doing what you know is wrong, heedless of harmful consequences — some unintended, others easily foreseeable — because the masses will perceive it as empathy.

So it goes . . . and not just with conservatives. Michael Lind of the center-left New America appears in the latest issue of National Review, urging that Trump’s victory signals an opportunity for Republicans to become the “party of dynamic industrial capitalism.” The constituency for such a party would be spearheaded by “the tradable sector — including manufacturing, industrial agriculture, energy, and minerals, and dominated by large firms and complex supply chains.” It is a sector, we are told, that is “essential to American prosperity,” generating more than twice as much value per dollar as the retail and service sectors.

It sounds great . . . and might even be compelling had Lind not written, just eight months ago, a lengthy Politico magazine essay entitled “Sorry, Trump, America Can’t Be Great Again.” In it, he mocked the growth potential of “the manufacturing sector beloved by populists and labor liberals alike.” “Nostalgic populists and old-fashioned labor liberals,” he elaborated, must be scandalized by “an economy in which there are vastly more job openings for home health aides and mall workers than for factory workers!” What a difference an election makes.

Or does it?

The significance of the populist moment, or the likelihood that we are actually in the midst of one, seems wildly overrated — unless you think it unimportant that the populist victor lost the popular vote. To win, President-elect Trump needed the Electoral College.

Trump did not win because of populism. His final vote tally will be roughly equal to the 62 million George W. Bush garnered in 2004.

Conceived by the Framers as a patriotically elitist body, it has been more than two centuries since the Electoral College performed the full extent of that role. Even vestigially, though, it is inherently anti-populist. That is something to celebrate. In the United States, it is the states, not the public at large, that elect the president. Absent that arrangement, the Constitution would not have been adopted, and the nation would not have been founded. Our republic has become more democratic, but honoring the original understanding ensures that elections remain national in the sense that candidates must court all the states and be responsive to their varying concerns.

Trump did not win because of populism. His final vote tally will be roughly equal to the 62 million George W. Bush garnered in 2004. Let’s bear in mind the Census Bureau’s estimate that our population has grown by 30 million since then. Even with Trump’s marginal improvement over the hauls of Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008 (about 61 and 60 million, respectively), the GOP has flat-lined, at least in presidential elections, in which voter participation is at its heaviest.

No, Trump won because he ran against a Democratic nominee whose support was tepid at best within her own party, which itself is hemorrhaging supporters. Mrs. Clinton was simply a very unappealing candidate — just as she had proven herself to be in 2008. It is likely that other, more committedly conservative Republican candidates with higher personal-approval ratings would have beaten her more handily.

#related#Over the past several election cycles, Democrats have been vanquished in federal, state, and local contests across the country. Let’s just take presidential elections, where comparative success has camouflaged catastrophe down-ballot. Since Barack Obama won nearly 70 million votes in 2008, Democrats have lost 5 million voters despite almost 20 million in population growth. During that time frame, they could not have done more to pose as the party that cares about the average American. Indeed, in 2012, Obama beat Romney by a staggering 81 to 18 percent among voters who believed the president was the candidate who “cares more about people like me.”

The rout has been on nonetheless. More of the statist solutions preferred by Democrats would help some groups, as they always do; but it would be at the expense of others, and of liberty, as it always is. There is no reason to believe Republicans will prosper by endorsing statism under the guise of populism.

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